Australian sport is mourning the death of Ron Barassi.
Ron Barassi, one of Australian Rules' most celebrated figures, has died at the age of 87. Image by James Ross/AAP PHOTOS
  • Australian rules football

AFL mourns death of legendary player and coach Barassi

September 16, 2023

The last night of Ronald Dale Barassi’s rich life appropriately featured a belter of an AFL semi-final where he would have been in his element as a player or coach.

Hours after Carlton, who worship Barassi as a two-time premiership coach, beat Melbourne, who revere him as a six-time premiership player, the Australian sporting icon died on Saturday aged 87.

“After a full and extraordinary life, Ronald Dale Barassi, aged 87, left us today due to complications from a fall,” the statement said.

“He died peacefully, surrounded by loving family. We ask for privacy at this time.”

While he had been ailing for some time and the news comes as no surprise, Barassi’s death is nevertheless a seismic moment in Australian sporting history.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese led tributes to Barassi, saying there is no more famous name in football.

AFL chairman Richard Goyder called him the game’s most important figure since World War Two.

On Friday night, the AFL honoured Barassi with a tribute video before the Carlton-Melbourne clash.

Players and fans gave Barassi a standing ovation at Adelaide Oval and there was a short period of silence before Saturday night’s Port Adelaide-GWS semi.

“How fitting that just last night, two clubs in which he left such an impact should play out a final that typified the toughness, ferocious competitiveness and passion that symbolised so much that was great about Ron,” said Carlton president Luke Sayers.

The first player to be inaugurated into the Australian Football Hall of Fame as a Legend, Barassi played 253 senior VFL games in his career, including 204 for Melbourne and 49 for Carlton.

Between playing and coaching, Barassi claimed 10 premierships at Melbourne, Carlton and North Melbourne.

Only fellow Demons great Norm Smith, who coached Barassi, has as many flags in his Australian Rules playing and coaching career.

In the game’s history, Barassi rivals Leigh Matthews as the greatest player and coach and “Mr Football” Ted Whitten for his public profile.

As Goyder noted, Barassi was known around Australia before the league became truly national.

“He revolutionised the game as a player – created the position of ruck rover – built premiership success at clubs as a coach and then was our first great evangelist to take the game north and grow it to become what we have today,” Goyder added.

Barassi is a seminal figure in the history of four clubs – as a premiership player and later coach at Melbourne, as a premiership coach at Carlton, the coach of North Melbourne’s first two flags and the man who coached Sydney when the club was on its knees.

He was born in Melbourne on February 27, 1936.

His father Ron Barassi Sr also played senior football for Melbourne before he was killed in World War ll at Tobruk in 1941, when Barassi was only five years old.

Barassi Jr first played senior football for Melbourne aged just 17 in 1953 and lived in Smith’s home.

Barassi is credited with changing the position of ruck rover. He used brute strength to force his way through packs, fighting for the ball.

He was a fiercely determined player, desperate to win every game.

Barassi played for the Demons during the club’s golden era. They won three consecutive grand finals between 1955-57, another two in 1959-60, and also in 1964 – their last for 57 years.

One of the highlights of Melbourne’s drought-breaking 2021 flag was that Barassi could be part of the celebrations.

He stunned the game by leaving Melbourne for Carlton – until Barassi made the move, players rarely changed clubs.

His decision is regarded as the moment when the then-VFL left its amateur origins..

He went to Carlton as captain-coach in 1965, gaining a reputation as a stickler for discipline. The approach worked, and Barassi coached the Blues to premierships in 1968 and 1970.

The 1970 comeback grand final win over Collingwood is one of the most famous games in Australian Rules history, with Barassi’s instruction to handball at all costs part of the sport”s folklore.

Resuming from a two-year break from the game in 1973, Barassi moved to North Melbourne, guiding the Kangaroos to their first premiership in 1975 and another one in 1977. 

Barassi returned to Melbourne as coach between 1981-1985 without success.

He was lured out of retirement to coach Sydney in 1993 and he laid some of the groundwork for the Swans’ grand final appearance under Rodney Eade in 1996.

At the Commonwealth Games in 2006, Barassi “walked on water” on the Yarra River to carry the Queen’s Baton, before passing it to Australian 1500m champion Herb Elliot.

On New Year’s Day in 2009, Barassi went to the aid of a woman being attacked in the street by a group of men who then turned on the AFL legend, leaving him with serious head injuries.

He received an Australian Bravery Award for his actions.

Barassi married twice, first to Nancy Kellett in 1957 with whom he had a daughter and two sons; and to Cherryl Copeland in 1981.